A new climate-resistance ecosystem frontier?
Biotechnology is helping to combat the effects of climate change and extreme weather events on crop production
Climate change is a pressing concern for farmers, as crop production and climate are interconnected. The extent to which climate change affects crop production could disrupt our global food system and compromise food security.
Biotechnology-based solutions can help farmers nourish plant defense mechanisms in dealing with the impacts of climate variability.
Adverse weather conditions affect agricultural systems globally — repeated heat waves, droughts or rainfall pattern variations put added pressure on plants as they try to overcome recurring environmental stressors.
Weather-related disruption of plants’ natural growth and production cycles, along with pests and diseases, compromise crop yields, all aggravated by the high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to greenhouse gas emissions.
Agricultural systems must become more resilient in anticipating and adapting to the impacts of this changing weather scenario.
The growing frequency and intensity of disasters, along with the systemic nature of risk, are jeopardizing our entire food system. —FAO. 2021. The impact of disasters and crises on agriculture and food security: 2021. Rome.
Plants are already facing extreme weather conditions
Multiple studies attest to the impact of fast-paced climate change on crop production.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States anticipates that corn yields may decrease by 24% in 2030 as a result of the increasing difficulties in growing this crop in tropical regions. On the flip side, by expanding its area of influence, wheat could grow by 17%.
According to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) analysis of 78 post-disaster cases in developing countries from 2003 to 2013, agriculture accounted for 25% of all economic losses and damages caused by medium- and large-scale climatic hazards in those nations.
A 2ºC (35.6ºF) increase in the global temperature of the planet would lead to a reduction in both quantity and quality of crop production. Controlling global warming below 2ºC will only be achieved by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including agriculture, according to a special report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
A reality that forces us to redouble the efforts of this decisive sector, as stated by Dr. Vaughn Holder, Alltech’s ruminant research director: “Agriculture has gone from having the most important job in the world to having the two most important jobs in the world: feeding the world and reversing climate change.”
Resilient agriculture in the face of climate change
Farmers can improve production systems’ resilience with balanced crop management practices that support their crops in the face of unfavorable weather and environmental stressors.
With increasingly frequent extreme weather events, soil-applied biotechnology using beneficial microorganisms becomes an essential ally to activate effective climate resistance.
Improving soil health allows us to increase organic matter to make more nutrients available to the plant, enhances soil structure favoring water and nutrient retention, improves fertility and reduces soil erosion.
Crop diversification and rotation, low- to no-tillage techniques, and the use of plant covers that increase soil moisture and reduce thermal stress conditions are just some of the sustainable practices that favor biodiversity and increase agricultural production.
Restoring soil health and fertility brings more immediate benefits not only to farmers but to the ecosystem as a whole, because healthy soil has a greater capacity to retain greenhouse gases, thus helping to mitigate climate change.
Climate resilience under our feet
Many of the biological and physical processes between the atmosphere and the lithosphere are mediated by soil, making soil health integral to agricultural sustainability against the backdrop of climate change.
Carbon management within the soil system plays a major role in addressing global warming and the pressure it poses to agriculture production. Soil microbes are an active part of the carbon cycle, decomposing organic matter and breaking it down to dissolved organic carbon (DOC) molecules that can bind to soil particles, thus originating long-term carbon sequestration or releasing carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
The rise of global temperature is accelerating the decomposition rate of organic matter in the soil, affecting its water storage capacity, nutrient balance and aggregate stability, all important factors for good soil structure and fertility, which enhance productivity and sustainability.
Higher temperatures can alter microbial populations, creating stress and setting off soil ecosystem imbalances. Fostering a thriving and vibrant soil microbiome to overcome the negative effects of global warming is an essential step toward significant resilience under adverse weather conditions.